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Why Ireland Funds' decision to honour undeserving vice-president Pence is the wrong one

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The decision to honour Mr Pence was announced unilaterally by The Ireland Funds in early February, before the ink had dried on the Muslim travel ban. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The decision to honour Mr Pence was announced unilaterally by The Ireland Funds in early February, before the ink had dried on the Muslim travel ban. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Getty Images

The decision to honour Mr Pence was announced unilaterally by The Ireland Funds in early February, before the ink had dried on the Muslim travel ban. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

US Vice President Mike Pence will be the surprising recipient of an honour in Chicago at a dinner hosted by the Irish American philanthropic organisation, The Ireland Funds, on March 15. Along with assorted worthies from the worlds of business, politics and the Church will be Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Irish Ambassador to the US, Anne Anderson.

In a dependable annual ritual, Irish politicians will descend en masse next week to cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco to press the flesh with local politicians and businesses.

The idea behind the annual St Patrick's Day boondoggle is that it fosters goodwill towards Ireland, as well as current and future Irish immigrants, while at the same time reminding the descendants of Irish emigrants that the old country is open for business, perched on the edge of the EU, with generous corporate tax structures to boot.

As a country which has had its economic struggles before and since independence from Britain, immigration has been a huge part of the story of modern Ireland.

There are currently 50,000 Irish people living and working illegally in the United States, occupying a lonely, invisible and fearful netherworld. At some of the worst economic times in Ireland, so great were the numbers of those living illegally in the US that two visa programmes were introduced aimed at creating amnesties for illegal immigrants. These visa lotteries gave a lifeline to tens of thousands of Irish people who were otherwise stuck in an impossible limbo.

The decision to honour the vice president of an administration which has demonised illegal immigrants as mere criminals and which has fomented a climate of racism, intolerance and fear of foreigners beggars belief.

Although he has Irish ancestry on his mother's side, and has visited Ireland, Mr Pence was not involved in the Irish peace process and has never been known to be active in advancing US-Irish interests. In other words, what has he done to deserve this award on Ireland's national holiday?

Two weeks after the presidential inauguration, when I received the $1,000 (€940) a head dinner and reception invitation to this event in Chicago, I thought I must be dreaming. As a regional board member of The Ireland Funds for over five years and as reporter who had covered many of its conferences, I am well aware of the need for such an organisation to keep friends on both sides of the aisle. But I fail to understand the haste to honour him now, given the fevered climate of hostility towards immigrants, which Mr Pence has said not one word to quell.

Last year, the fund honoured former vice president Joe Biden, whose Irish Catholic roots and affection for Ireland are well known. Mr Biden was honoured a full eight years in to the Obama presidency.

The decision to honour Mr Pence was announced unilaterally by The Ireland Funds in early February, before the ink had dried on the Muslim travel ban. It is a stunningly craven move, given all that was known long before January 21 of what the policy on immigration and other issues would be and given many Irish people's long and painful experiences with the issue.

The day after the inauguration, tens of thousands of Irish people took to the streets across Ireland to protest at the vile rhetoric and threatened actions of the Trump administration.

It will be easy to imagine the lead balloon effect this decision to honour Mr Pence will have on the Irish taxpayer, a decision signed off on without even consulting The Ireland Funds board. And it's not just about the stance on immigration.

Irish Catholics were demonised for centuries under the British and treated as second-class citizens in the US, until the Kennedys broke through the sectarian glass ceiling. Seeing the comparable demonisation of Muslims, the total lack of compassion towards refugees and the virtual silence in the face of the rise in anti-Semitism, it is to my mind totally unacceptable to celebrate the vice president at this time.

I have resigned from the board in protest and utter disbelief at such a move. In accepting my resignation, the chairman of The Ireland Funds said it planned to use the dinner to talk to Mr Pence about "tolerance and inclusivity". Given what is also known about his attitude to homosexuality, I wonder if the Taoiseach might think it too soon to talk to Mr Pence about how Ireland was the first country in the world to proudly and overwhelmingly vote to legalise gay marriage.

March 15, 2017, will not go down as a great day for the Irish. We are divided by much more than a common language.

Patricia Danaher is an Irish writer and Nieman Fellow based in Los Angeles

Irish Independent